Free to Leave

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Locarno International Film Festival

LOCARNO, Switzerland -- The momentary distraction of a stolen kiss causes a train wreck in Austrian director Peter Payer's haunting drama "Free to Leave," ("Freigesprochen"), which explores the impact such guilt has on the individuals concerned. Clear-eyed but compassionate, the film has an eerie quality that derives from the notion that almost anyone could be in a similar situation that dramatically changes the lives of so many people. Screened in Competition at Locarno, it's an intelligent drama that should travel beyond German-speaking territories and possibly invite an English-language version.

Based on a play titled "Judgment Day" by Odon von Horvath, "Free to Leave" begins with a body falling from a bridge to hard frozen ground. Time shifts immediately to the bustle of a small town with people anxious because a strike by transport workers is affecting the train timetable.

Ferdinand (Robert Stadlober) decides to take a later slow train in order to spend extra time in bed with his sweetheart Anna (Lavinia Wilson). Thomas (Frank Giering), however, spurns the attentions of his older wife, Hanni (Corinna Harfouch) as he must get to work promptly because his day will be hectic overseeing all the railway traffic signals. His best friend Josef (Alfred Dorfer) is off on his usual morning milk round.

Having seen her boyfriend off at the station, Anna stops into the control office to see Thomas, who's like an older brother to her although she likes to flirt with him. Larking about, she spontaneously kisses him, taking his attention away from the control board. In that fleeting moment, a signal is missed, a railway barrier is not lowered and an express train powers into Josef's milk truck. In the derailment, 22 people including Josef are killed and scores more seriously injured.

The film explores the shattering impact of such an event less on the hurt and bereaved than on the ones responsible. Thomas and Anna are drawn together even as their relationship with others begins to fragment. It's unremitting stuff and Payer handles it with insight, demonstrating impressive cinematic technique.

Giering unerringly conveys his character's draining self-worth while Wilson portrays a woman spinning giddily out of control. Harfouch contributes a convincing portrayal of a woman trying staunchly to absorb the horrifying outcome of her husband's waywardness.

The wintry landscape well captured by cinematographer Andreas Berger and a poignant score by Andre Mergenthaler and Walter Cikan help deepen the film's despairing mood.

FREE TO LEAVE
Lotus Films, Iris Productions
Credits:
Director: Peter Payer
Writer: Peter Payer
Based on the play by: Odon von Horvath
Producers: Erich Lackner, Nicolas Steil
Director of photography: Andreas Berger
Production designers: Elisabeth Klobassa, Christina Schaffer
Music: Andre Mergenthaler, Walter Cikan
Costume designer: Uli Simon
Editor: Cordula Werner
Cast:
Thomas: Frank Giering
Anna: Lavinia Wilson
Hanni: Corinna Harfouch
Ferdinand: Robert Stadlober
Josef: Alfred Dorfer
Anna's father: Thierry van Werveke
Running time -- 96 minutes
No MPAA rating
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